Dallas’ playoff opponent is finally set in stone. Thanks to a Maverick win and Kobe Bryant’s ongoing crusade to burn the city of Sacramento to the ground, the Mavs will face off with the formidable Portland Trailblazers in the first found of the postseason. Rejoice, and be worried; this matchup is terrific for basketball fans but should be uncomfortable to the Maverick faithful, a conflict of identities for those who appreciate both the game and this particular team. We’re in for a fantastic series, but a hell of an opponent stands between Dallas and the second round.
The Mavericks are a better team than the Blazers by virtually every objective measure; win percentage, efficiency differential, point differential, Pythagorean win percentage, and the simple rating system all favor Dallas. In terms of their season-long numbers, the Mavs have outperformed the Blazers on both ends of the court, and enjoy all of the statistical trimmings that come with that superior level of performance. However, the fact that Dallas is a better team only matters tangentially. Playoff series’ are so much more dependent on the ways in which teams succeed than just how successful those teams are, a fact surely not lost on Mavs fans. This outcome of this series won’t be determined by determining the better team, but merely the more effective one given this specific matchup.
Dallas and Portland faced off four times during the regular season, but reading too much into the outcome of those four contests can be a bit misleading; the Blazers thoroughly dominated their latest game against the Mavs, for example, but Tyson Chandler’s absence hardly makes it a representative sample. The same can be said of the exclusion of Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Roy in previous games, the mid-season acquisition of Gerald Wallace, and the unavailability of Caron Butler — we have four games’ worth of competition between the two teams, but little to speak of in the way of legitimate macro-level assessment.
So instead, the most prudent way to predict the performance of both teams is to look at smaller factors which could potentially turn the series. In my eyes, Portland creates particular problems for Dallas through their combination of versatile forwards and sizable guards. LaMarcus Aldridge — who averaged 27.8 points on 51% shooting against Dallas this season — is a huge part of the problem, and acts as a catalyst of sorts for the Blazers to exploit the Mavs on a number of levels. Regardless of whether Marcus Camby is on the floor, Rick Carlisle has largely opted to defend Aldridge with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood. Carlisle’s decision is understandable; putting Dirk Nowitzki on Aldridge wouldn’t present any kind of advantage (and needlessly puts Dirk at risk for foul trouble), and Shawn Marion doesn’t have the size to contend with Aldridge in the post. That leaves Chandler and Haywood as the most logical defensive options, as both are long enough to contest Aldridge’s shot and strong enough to fight him for position down low. Neither has been tremendously successful in stopping Aldridge in the post thus far this season, but they provide the best theoretical counters considering the Mavs’ lack of alternatives.
If that potential mismatch in Portland’s favor isn’t enough, more problems start to arise when we weigh Aldridge’s other abilities. Not only is Portland’s new frontman skilled in operating from either block, but he’s a credible mid-range shooter and a constant threat to slip toward the basket for a lob. Aldridge’s combination of size, range, and mobility makes him an incredibly difficult cover, and with Dallas’ assumed defensive configuration, his ability to put up points is only the first of several concerns introduced by his very presence. Defensive rebounding is also a legitimate issue, as Aldridge is able to pull one of the Mavs’ strongest rebounders away from the basket by stepping out to the perimeter. That not only limits the rebounding impact of Chandler and Haywood while Aldridge is on the court, but opens up more opportunities for the Blazers — one of the strongest offensive rebounding teams in the league — to attack the glass. Dallas is normally strong on the defensive glass, but it’s no coincidence that some of their worst rebounding performances of the season have come against Portland (the Blazers grabbed more than 27.9 percent of available offensive boards in three of the four games, with the only outlier being the quasi-blowout in the most recent game).
Even more problematic is what that same range does for Dallas’ defensive spacing. Every successful defensive scheme relies on bigs who are able to rotate from across the court and contest shots around the rim, but Aldridge’s ability to knock down an open 18-footer makes it far more difficult for Chandler or Haywood to leave him and rotate into the paint. Without consistent help on the back line (Nowitzki tries, but Dirks will be Dirks), the Mavs’ perimeter defenders are in trouble; one misstep could lead to an uncontested layup or a trip to the free throw line, and Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, and Rodrigue Beaubois certainly commit their share of defensive blunders. Plus, Aldridge’s ability to space the floor opens up the opportunity for the Blazer guards to set up against their undersized opponents on the block. Brandon Roy and Andre Miller are skilled post-up threats capable of both scoring and making plays, and together with Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez, the Blazer guard corps towers over the Mavs’ backcourt.
Portland not only has that specific size advantage, but has shown in their last two games against Dallas that they fully intend to exploit it. Ultimately, the Mavs are put in a position in which fielding any of their crucial but diminutive guards — the aforementioned Terry, Barea, and Beaubois — invites an easy post-up opportunity for either Roy or Miller. The three-guard lineup is even more vulnerable, further limiting Carlisle’s rotational options. Terry and Barea will play, but we could be left pondering ways to keep them off the floor, particularly if either player fails to produce on offense.
Carlisle may adjust by redistributing minutes, but Corey Brewer and DeShawn Stevenson seem to be his only alternatives, and I’m not sure either is likely to actually play significant minutes. In a way, this is all an extension from last year’s playoffs: Terry is almost certain to be an on-court mainstay, and even more certain to be on the court to close games — even when his replacement makes intuitive sense. Last year, it was Beaubois, who ripped up the court in Game 6 against the Spurs before grabbing a seat prematurely, who could have replaced JET. This season, if Terry isn’t on his offensive game, it may make more sense for him to sit for defensive reasons. He isn’t uniquely responsible for Dallas’ potential defensive troubles, but he’s the undersized guard most likely to log the most playing time. The decision to slash the minutes of a player like JET is an immensely difficult one, and it may not even be the correct one. But those guard matchups could end up doing a lot of damage, and one can only hope that Carlisle has some counter — either in scheme or personnel — up his sleeve.
For their part, the Mavs don’t have a unique matchup advantage other than the fact that they employ Dirk Nowitzki, and that as a team they have the ability to hit shots of all kinds with consistency. That last fact should be especially evident against Portland’s relatively poor shooting defense; for all their defensive versatility and long-armed wings, the Blazers rank 22nd in effective field goal percentage allowed. Dirk Nowitzki will have his work cut out for him grappling with Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum (among others), but I nonetheless anticipate him having an MVP-type series. There’s only so much a defender can do. Wallace and Batum are sure to put in good work on D, but Nowitzki is that efficient, that prolific, that deadly. Expect consistently excellent work from the block, the wing, and the elbow, as Dirk turns in more typically stellar postseason numbers.
Dallas’ perimeter shooters should also be in for a field day. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Blazers rank 25th in the league in their defense of spot-up jumpers on a per possession basis, while the Maverick shooters rank sixth in their points scored per spot-up possession. This is where being a “jumpshooting team” comes in handy; spot-up jumpshots are a substantial part — 22.7 percent — of the Dallas offense, and happen to be one of Portland’s greatest defensive weaknesses. Let there be a turkey in every pot and a kick-out for every shooter — it’s gonna be a feast from the outside.
To hone in a bit: Portland ranks in the bottom 10 in three-point shooting defense — a big reason why both their points per spot up possession allowed and their opponents’ effective field goal percentage are so high. The Mavs have four consistent perimeter marksmen (Terry, Stevenson, Brian Cardinal, Peja Stojakovic) outside of Nowitzki, and any who sees the floor should find open looks with some regularity. The problem is how many of those shooters will actually see notable time; Stevenson could end up starting, but he’d been out of the rotation for a while before his unearthing on Wednesday. His role is uncertain, to say the least. Cardinal could be left off the playoff roster altogether if Rick Carlisle elects to bring Brewer along for the postseason, and even if Cardinal does make the playoff roster, Dallas rarely plays him and Nowitzki at the same time, which would limit his potential application.
Regardless, Terry, Stojakovic, Jason Kidd, and J.J. Barea should have room to fire from outside. They may not always convert (particularly in the case of the latter two), but those openings are nonetheless an important part of Dallas’ advantage. The opportunities will be there, so it’s on the usually efficient Mavs to hit their shots.
Dallas shouldn’t have too much of a problem scoring, but they may have some issues in setting up a fluid offense. As counter-intuitive as that sounds, consider this: the Blazers are as good as any team in the league at creating turnovers, but as noted above, they don’t contest shots well at all. One shouldn’t expect some freewheeling Maverick attack, but once the ball gets to Nowitzki or Marion in the post (where they can either score or execute a basic kick-out), to a shooter off a curl via a Kidd assist, or to Terry or Barea to run the pick-and-roll, all should be right with the world. The problem is in the intermediary, those moments between the first and second options in a set where Kidd tries to thread an overly ambitious pass, Terry attempts to create off the dribble in vain, or a non-ball-handler ends up uncomfortably holding the rock as the shot clock dwindles. If the Mavs establish their play actions and work through them without trying to do too much, they shouldn’t have much of a problem on the offensive end at all. If they panic or rush rather than work through their options patiently, then Wallace, Miller, Matthews, and Fernandez will furiously swarm the ball like leather-eating piranhas.
With that in mind, this series feels like a shootout. Portland isn’t a particularly sound defensive team, and Dallas’ defense doesn’t seem poised to be particularly effective based on the matchup and their recent performance. The point totals may not soar due to neither team being a true fast-breaking outfit, but this is a series of offensive prowess unless the Mavs can prove otherwise. One defensive scheme isn’t enough, either; Nate McMillan is a smart, flexible coach, and he’ll have his players adapt to any single counter the Mavs utilize. Dallas will need multiple responses to both Aldridge and the Blazer guards, and somehow not neglect Wallace and Batum in the process. It’s doable, but difficult.
Which is why I regretfully predict that the Blazers will win in seven games. It’s not an easy call; these Mavs are skilled and can theoretically execute on both ends. I just think Portland’s mismatches will prove a bit too problematic. I think Jason Kidd won’t be quite as effective as the Mavs need him to be. I think Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge will both be tremendous, and the rest of both teams will be left to tip the balance. I think the Blazers can hide Brandon Roy too easily on defense, which lets him stay on the court long enough to cause a problem. I think Wallace and Batum may only hinder Nowitzki, but they’re capable of significantly limiting Marion. I think that there is a distinct possibility that the Mavs win this series, but there are just too many concerns to consider it the most likely outcome.
The Mavs are the better team in this series. Sometimes that just isn’t enough.
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- First things first: this game was neither as close as the final score suggests, nor is it the end of the world. It’s one game in a season, albeit a slightly troubling one given the Mavs’ current slope. If Dallas was exhausted after a nine-day, six-game road trip (a doozie even by standards of the typically rigorous NBA regular season schedule), they sure looked it. Maybe their effort — irrelevant of scheduling — just wasn’t there. Maybe this was just “one of those games.” All we know is that the Mavs didn’t have it in them to play 48 minutes of coherent basketball, and that is never a good thing. Assume whatever you’d like about these Mavs and their effort level, but the best they could do in Sunday’s game was tread water.
- Dirk Nowitzki’s (16 points, 5-12 FG, five rebounds) impact was suppressed, Jason Terry (four points, 1-6 FG) was absolutely bottled, and Jason Kidd (0-6 FG, four assists, two turnovers) was utterly useless in orchestrating the offense. Yet in the game’s final balance, it was still Dallas’ D that caused the biggest problems. The ease with which the Blazers were able to cut to the rim and the brutal effectiveness of basic drive-and-kick action are far more troubling than any Maverick player failing to make shots. Everything looked easy for the Blazers, and while that’s a testament to the talented, productive crew on Portland’s roster, it also helps when uncontested drives to the rim, frequent trips to the foul line, and open three-pointers are common results of simple play execution.
- On a related note: If the Mavs had a fatal flaw in Sunday’s game, it was their transition defense. Not only did Dallas’ defenders not pick up the ball-handler early enough in each transition sequence, but the lack of effort in getting back on defense overall was startling. I don’t think Gerald Wallace (19 points, 8-10 FG, eight rebounds, three assists, three steals, three turnovers) minded much, but the Mavs’ reluctance to defend the transition game without even the slightest competence should keep Rick Carlisle up at night.
- Of all of Portland’s killer runs, the most painful had to be a back-breaking 7-0 sprint just after the Mavs had scored eight straight to cut their deficit to 13 with six minutes remaining. Climbing out of a 13-point hole in six minutes is improbable, sure, but the Blazers made it impossible with a swift response that put the game completely out of reach.
- Shawn Marion (19 points, 8-11 FG, five rebounds) was terrific. He slid into open space, created lanes to receive passes, and generated quality attempts. He seemed to be clicking on a level that the rest of the Mavs simply couldn’t access, in large part due to an energy that far exceeded that of any of his teammates. Shawn Marion was the best Maverick on the floor on Sunday, and while that’s terrific in its own way, in this case the gulf between Marion and his teammates was created by both parties.
- Brendan Haywood (five points, 11 rebounds, three offensive boards) was able to play strong individual defense on LaMarcus Aldridge (18 points, 9-17 FG, eight rebounds), who has become something of a terror for the Mavs and the league at large. No Mav — including Haywood — rotated well in order to establish a successful team concept on defense, but if nothing else, we know that Haywood can provide the length and size necessary to curtail Aldridge’s production should these teams meet in a playoff series. Tyson Chandler sat this one out to nurse a minor back injury, but Haywood showed well in his stead by sticking Aldridge and picking up a ton of boards.
- Rodrigue Beaubois (18 points, 6-12 FG, four assists, two turnovers) is in an odd position. For the relevant minutes he played in last night’s game (read: before garbage time), I thought Beaubois played well on the offensive end. Picked up too many fouls on D by playing as young players so often do (biting on pump fakes, hand-checking Brandon Roy, etc.), but he did well as a shot-creator with the ball in his hands. The only problem was that both Beaubois and his teammates missed some very makeable shots. Missed opportunities have a way of making a stat line go sour, and though Beaubois was able to throw up nine points in a hurry with the game more or less decided, I think some will still — wrongfully — see this game as further proof of some alleged unreliability. I don’t buy it, and frankly, I don’t buy a lot of the oddly negative evaluations of Beaubois’ play this season. More on that later.
- J.J. Barea (12 points, 5-10 FG, three assists, two turnovers) did a terrific job of giving the Mavs a scoring punch in limited minutes, but there’s also a reason that his raw plus-minus was a -1 for the night in spite of his offensive production. Barea is perhaps most emblematic of the specific problems that this Portland team causes from a matchup perspective; between Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez, the Mavs’ backcourt is undersized at almost every turn. To make matters worse: Miller, Matthews, and Roy understand how to exploit their size advantage on drives and down on the block, which puts a pretty unique pressure on the Mavs’ defense when Dallas trots out smaller lineups. There is no Blazer regular whom Barea can reasonably be expected to defend, and yet Dallas still needs him on the court for his dribble penetration. Should be interesting to see what happens with the Blazer guards should these teams meet in a playoff series.
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
- Losing a game like this one is undoubtedly rough on the Mavs, but we’re fortunate enough to be on the side of the fence for which losses don’t mean everything. Take a minute to appreciate just how spectacular of a contest this was. I know some would be happier with winning ugly, but there’s something to be said about the aesthetic worth of beautiful basketball. This was a wonderfully executed game by both teams, as Portland matched Dallas’ consistent machinations with flurries of highlight reel plays, and the two clubs combined for 49 assists. Those only interested in win-loss outcomes won’t see this game for what it really is, but this really was a remarkably entertaining 48 minutes.
- Those looking to blame the Mavs’ defense for this loss aren’t entirely correct. The Blazers did score at a rate of 126.8 points per 100 possessions, which is a less than spectacular mark. However, they also posted just a 50.6% effective field goal percentage, which hovers right around the league average. Dallas actually did well in contesting and challenging shots, but broke down in other areas; defensive rebounding was a clear issue, and the Mavs’ frequent turnovers fueled the Blazers’ offense and put them in a position of advantage. Portland picked up 15 boards in an 82-possession game, and their offensive rebounding rate for this game outpaced the season average for the league’s most prolific rebounding teams. Dallas did the same with their rush of turnovers, as their 15 giveaways in such a slow game put them a step above/below the rest of the league. Dallas still orchestrated beautifully when those passes connected, but there should be little doubt that their aggressiveness in forcing play action ended up being part of their downfall. It would have been great if LaMarcus Aldridge (30 points, 13-25 FG, eight assists) and Brandon Roy (21 points, 9-17 FG) didn’t have such productive offensive games, but its not as if either player was really defended all that poorly. It’s surely not a landmark defensive showing for Dallas, but not quite a spectacular failure, either.
- There were a handful of incredibly productive offensive players for Dallas — from Dirk Nowitzki and his 28 points on 14 shots, to Jason Kidd and his 14 assists, to Shawn Marion’s sweet cuts to the bucket for 18 — but Rodrigue Beaubois (16 points, 6-8 FG, 4-6 3FG, four assists) impressed me most. He looked incredibly comfortable finding his teammates, which should excite everyone who sees Beaubois as the future initiator of the Maverick offense. Beaubois made the kinds of passes you’d expect of a player who had spent an entire season developing chemistry with his teammates, not a second-year guard who spent most of the season on the shelf and is prone to questionable passing decisions. Plus, this was one of the finest defensive performances of Beaubois’ career, as he completely shackled Andre Miller (eight points, 2-9 FG, four assists). Beaubois got caught in the air once on a pump fake, but other than that minor slip-up, his D was incredible. I shouldn’t need to remind anyone that Miller is capable of giving the Mavs fits, and having a starter capable of defending him allowed Dallas to avoid all kinds of inconvenient cross-matching and lineup shuffling.
Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images.
Box Score — Play-By-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
“No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”
- This was a hideous game. The Mavs and Blazers are both top 10 teams in offensive efficiency, and yet last night neither team could score at a rate higher than 95.4 points per 100 possessions. Dallas shot .338 from the field compared to Portland’s .364 and won. Erick Dampier and Eddie Najera were the only Mavs to at least 50% from the field, and both went 1-for-2. It was physical, it was intense, and the officiating was pretty horrible. Neither team was given the whistles they deserved, and the Rose Garden was within inches of completely imploding. But you know what? The Mavs looked like the veteran team they are, and they kept playing. Dirk Nowitzki is brutally persistent in his complaints to the officials on some nights, but yesterday it was the Blazers that couldn’t stop yapping to the officiating crew (Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, and Nate McMillan were given techs for precisely this reason). While Dallas was ineffective on offense, Portland looked rattled. Not a bad thing to see from this team as they’re closing in on the playoffs.
- The Blazers were ice cold for long stretches of this game, but the Mavs didn’t make anything easy for the Portland offense. In terms of the Mavs’ ability to rotate, contest shots, and protect the rim, this was one of the Mavs’ more impressive efforts. I would never expect to say something like that after a game that Shawn Marion missed due to injury, but the Mavs’ defense on Brandon Roy (13 points, 4-14 FG, eight rebounds, six assists) was pretty impressive; Caron Butler (18 points, 6-16 FG, seven rebounds) offered a physical, aggressive counter, and the Mavs’ double teams didn’t leave the weak side exposed as they did in these two teams’ previous meetings. Brendan Haywood also did a pretty good job playing man defense on LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points, 9-20 FG, five rebounds, three blocks), even if LMA still had a very productive scoring night by hitting tough shots and running the floor.
- Jason Kidd had an interesting night. By most measures, this game was an abject failure for Kidd; many of his passes were errant (four turnovers to just six assists), he didn’t provide much scoring at all (just two points), and the offense he’s paid to run was woefully inefficient. There is one number on his stat line that should pop out, though: 12 rebounds. Team rebounding was so important in this game, and Kidd played a huge role in gathering the plethora of misses on both ends. The Mavs didn’t dominate the rebounding column, but they still deserve some credit for their effort on the glass. It may not seem like much, but Kidd pulling down a rebound in traffic, Caron Butler fighting for a second opportunity on the offensive boards, and J.J. Barea sprinting in to secure a defensive rebound — these are plays that matter. In a high-intensity contest, each of those plays does wonders in terms of establishing, retaining, or denying momentum, which matters even more when baskets are tough to come by.
- What can I even say about Dirk Nowitzki at this point in the season that I haven’t already said a million times before? He was terrific, and though he missed plenty of good looks (he was a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad 11-of-24 from the field), he more than made up for those misses with his frequent trips to the free throw line. 40 points on 24 shots is pretty insane no matter how you slice it, but that mark is even more impressive thanks to how badly the rest of the offense performed by comparison. Nowitzki had nearly half of the Mavs’ total points. Think about that.
- Another start for DeShawn Stevenson, but he again he didn’t play all that much. He only collected two rebounds and score no points in nearly 17 minutes, but his greatest value was in defending Brandon Roy early in the game. He was hardly spectacular, but he held down the fort until Butler was switched onto Roy later.
- Marcus Camby grabbed 18 rebounds. I remember some Mavs fans fussing a bit when John Hollinger gave the Blazers’ acquisition of Camby and the Mavs’ acquisition of Butler/Haywood the same “trade grade,” but is there any question that Camby has made a phenomenal difference since arriving in Portland?
- If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear in recent weeks, Eddie Najera has clear value to this team. With 1:07 seconds to go in the first quarter, Najera played the irritant, and stood in Juwan Howard’s path as Howard started to run back down the court after a Maverick basket. Juwan extended his arm, Najera hit the ground, offensive foul. Hardly the most honorable move, but getting under opponents’ skin is something that Eddie does extraordinarily well. His stat line will show up empty aside from his three points, but even that three-pointer was a go-ahead bucket that sank the Blazers just as they looked to be figuring things out.
- Jason Terry (12 points, two assists) did not shoot very well from the floor (3-of-9, 1-of-3 from three-point range), but to his credit he got to the line eight times. Some of those attempts were off of technical fouls, but that doesn’t change the fact that JET was more aggressive in going to the hoop when his shot clearly wasn’t going to be kind to him.
- Rudy Fernandez () didn’t score in great volume, but his three three-pointers were much like Najera’s: they were far more impactful than a few ticks on the scoreboard. Fernandez has had a very weird season, with his shooting stroke, his ambiguous role on the team, and injury mucking up what could have been a very successful year. It’s good to see at least his health and his shooting going his way, even if there’s lingering uncertainty between Rudy and the team over his place with the Blazers.
- J.J. Barea (zero points 0-5 FG, two rebounds, one assist) played nearly 11 minutes, but the Mavs didn’t give Jason Kidd enough of a break for any of the Mavs’ point guards to take a significant turn at running the show. Rodrigue Beaubois: DNP-CD.
- Brendan Haywood’s performance was much better than the six points and four rebounds he ended up with. He boxed out well even if he wasn’t the man to collect the rebound, he challenged shots inside and altered layups due to his rotation, and he got to the foul line a few times by putting pressure on the Blazers’ bigs. This one won’t go on his resume or in his highlight reel, but it was still a fairly effective night for Brendan.
- A point that came up in the comments yesterday and in Eddie Sefko’s mailbag: if back-up point guard is a problem for the Mavs with Barea and assuming Beaubois isn’t the answer, why not go to Jason Terry? If we’re moving around pieces on paper, it makes sense. I thought Terry did a nice job as the Mavs’ full-time point guard, and this would be a similar role but scaled back in minutes. It also opens up more minutes at the 2 for Roddy Beaubois, with the cost being the complete marginalization of J.J. Barea. I’m sure plenty of Mavs fans would not be opposed to that. Some concerns though: Terry hasn’t been a real point guard for years, and even though he can and will distribute on occasion, it hasn’t been his in-game mindset for quite some time now. Plus, in terms of his familiarity with the playbook, Terry knows the Mavs’ sets as the 2. He’d have to go back to basics if he were to take over as a point.
- Caron Butler will be blogging (on occasion) for NBA.com.
- Positions that worry the Mavs defensively: PG, SG, PF. No problem with SF and C, though, which has been the story all season with Shawn Marion, Erick Dampier, and Brendan Haywood putting forth some solid defensive performances. Extra credit – notice anything about the Mavs’ problem areas and the Blazers’ top performers last night?
- Dave of Blazers Edge: “Portland didn’t let the Dallas runs throw them. They didn’t settle for a ton of bad shots. They never lost their poise. They took advantage of their advantages, which sounds circular but as year-long viewers will know it’s something the Blazers have struggled to do this season. They rolled the dice with the No-No Nowitzki strategy, stuck to it, and it worked. It was just a nice game. Finally.”
- You can see Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd’s locker room availability here, as well as Q&A with Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nate McMillan.
Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images.
Box Score — Play-By-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
“I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.”
Road teams face an uphill battle. The Mavs perform better away from home than most teams in the league, but that doesn’t necessarily make each individual contest any easier. They face the same struggles, from the travel to the unfamiliar accommodations, to the fans and the officials. Home court matters in the NBA, which makes it all the more important for a team to bring their A game along for a road trip.
This wasn’t quite the Mavs’ A game. Probably a C+ game. The first half was plagued by flawed defensive strategy, and the finale by poor execution. The Mavs’ strength is supposedly their ability to execute in spite of their opposition, but they looked absolutely flustered under the pressure of the Blazers’ defense. The free throw differential was substantial, Dirk Nowitzki (15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, seven rebounds) had an off night, the Blazers looked to be in complete control, and the Mavs were in complete offensive disarray.
Yet with four minutes left, the Mavs found themselves trailing by just eight. Thanks to some hot shooting from the perimeter, the zone defense, and a fellow named Caron Butler (25 points, 11-19 FG, nine rebounds, two steals), Dallas was poised to make a serious run at this game with ample time to pull out a win.
They didn’t. They folded. The defense surrendered open looks to Brandon Roy (16 points, 5-7 FG, seven assists, four rebounds) and Andre Miller (19 points, 10 assists, three steals). Any hopes that the Mavs could somehow walk away with a win when they had no business doing so was shattered on the Rose Garden floor. This game might as well be the Mavs’ “Almost Got ‘Em“; they had a chance to play the bad guys before an incredibly vocal crowd, but right when Portland looked its most vulnerable, an unexpected turn put the Mavs on their backs. The problem with biding time before making a big run on the road is that it’s essentially a one shot proposition. Once the Mavs took their shot — which fell quite a bit short, given the Blazers’ ability to best them on both ends — even the illusion of drama was wiped from the game entirely.
I think we’ve officially reached the point where the Mavs have developed a Blazer complex. The natural instinct when this team sees Brandon Roy is to overcompensate, mostly in fear of what opposing guards have been able to do to the Mavs in the past. That’s why Dallas was doubling Roy off of every screen, hurling another big defender at him to take him out of the game. It worked for Houston in last year’s playoffs (or at least the idea behind it did, evne if the Rockets didn’t execute in exactly the same way), and to an extent it makes sense. But Roy was able to exploit the pressure with smart, crisp passing, a big reason why the Mavs allowed Portland, a good offensive team but a slow offensive team, to put up 32 points in the first quarter.
Not to say that LaMarcus Aldridge (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) didn’t play a part in that as well. Aldridge had 10 points in the first quarter on 5-of-8 shooting, coming off of turnaround jumpers, forays deep into the paint, and smart cuts. LaMarcus did more than just to play to his strengths in the first twelve minutes; he was utterly dominant.
But no one benefited more from the additional attention paid to Roy than Marcus Camby (17 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks), who helped to diversify the Blazers’ early offense with seven first quarter points. Camby is somewhat limited as an offensive threat. He has no back-to-the-basket game to speak of, and his points come almost exclusively off of offensive rebounds, assisted looks at the rim off of cuts, and mid-range jumpers. So shockingly, when the Mavs were throwing two defenders at Roy, who is one of the better playmaking 2 guards in the league, the ball wound up in the hands of an open man. That open man was often Camby, who was able to get his money’s worth early.
The Mavs were putting up points of their own, but there were early signs that the offense would struggle. Passing and play execution were major concerns in the first quarter, and it’s a slight wonder that the Mavs were able to put up 27 points in spite of those warning signs. Their struggles didn’t fully actualize until the second half, when Portland’s ability to throw a number of long, interchangeable defenders at the Mavs’ scorers was nothing short of smothering. There are certain Mavs games where every offensive possession makes you hold your breath, not because of some team-wide brilliance or a stunning individual performance, but because that single exhaled breath could push over a team resting on the edge. So many broken plays and lazy passes, and though the Blazers’ defense didn’t translate into a high number of turnovers (the Mavs finished with 11 for the game, 1.4 shy of their season average), it clearly limited the Mavs’ ability to execute.
Is it possible that after all those years of facing long, active defenders, the swarming long-armed flurry that broke the Mavs down in the 2007 playoffs is still giving Dallas problems? For this regular season game, it certainly seems so. One would only hope that a seven-game series would tell a different story.
The Mavs’ defense improved significantly in the second half, when they began to lean heavily on the zone. The catch-22 inherent to unconventional defensive schemes was painfully apparent: at some point, an opposing team’s continued exposure to a defense will enable them to beat it. Good teams will be able to solve and counter the zone in the playoffs, which is why stabilizing the Mavs’ rotations in man-to-man sets is so important. The zone can be a great addition to a team’s defensive arsenal, and it was just that for the Mavs last night. But once Aldridge starts working the high post, shooters space the floor, the offense overloads one particular side, or backdoor cutters start exposing the defense, it’s game over.
The Mavs needed to stop Andre Miller’s penetration because frankly, Kidd was a sieve. They needed a force in the paint to always defend the rim, because Aldridge and Camby were pulling the Mavs’ bigs out to the perimeter. You’ll hear no questions from me about why Carlisle opted to go zone because frankly, the results speak for themselves. The problem is that the man defense was so poor and has been so poor that Rick didn’t have much of a choice. With just ten games left before the playoffs begin, this should worry you.
This loss isn’t the end of the world for the Mavs, but it certainly hurts. Dallas hasn’t had a meaningful win since the first of the month (or perhaps longer, if you don’t respect the Bobcats), which is a product of soft scheduling and some disappointing play against stronger opponents. That needs to change, and the Mavs will have three tough opportunities (Denver, Orlando, and OKC, all at home) to get quality wins over the next eight days. These games matter, folks, and the Mavs are running out of time and excuses.
- A weird game for Brendan Haywood (eight points, eight rebounds, four blocks, three turnovers). A times, he looked completely capable of dominating the Blazer bigs. No one on Portland’s roster is a strong on-ball post defender, and Haywood has the size and skill to take advantage of that. He showed that much with a nice baseline hook and a nifty up and under dunk. But he also was a complete liability in holding the ball, as he was stripped on numerous occasions by blind side help defenders.
- On an individual level, Jason Kidd (11 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) didn’t have a terrible game. But considering that the the flow of the offense is his primary responsibility, this game was a complete failure for Kidd. The blame obviously doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders, but if Kidd’s value comes in the intangibles and having a steadying influence on the offense, this was one his poorest performances of the season.
- 9-of-22 shooting from beyond the arc? Yes please, I’ll have another. Just nine free throw attempts? Please, sir, I’d like some more.
- Is there any basketball team on the planet that couldn’t use a Nicolas Batum? Anyone know where the Mavs might be able to buy one?
- The Mavs are not going to win many games where Dirk and JET combine for 9-of-27 shooting, and the only reason Dallas was even competitive offensively was due to spot production across the board, Caron Butler, and Shawn Marion (15 points, 7-12 FG, four rebounds).
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc Spears have unearthed the All-Star reserves, with a few surprises.
Dirk Nowitzki’s exclusion was not one of them. His selection was never even debatable. But the Western Conference reserves will be Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Deron Williams, and and Zach Randolph. Great picks all the way down the line, and particular kudos to the coaches for picking this crop over Denver’s Chauncey Billups. Billups is a fine player, but this just isn’t his year. Plus, I think there’s a very legitimate argument to be made for Tyreke Evans over Chauncey, anyway…but we’ll save that for another day.
In the East, the reserves will be Rajon Rondo, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh, Gerald Wallace, Al Horford, Paul Pierce, and Derrick Rose. In related news, it really, really sucks to be David Lee right now. He’s doing just about everything humanly possible (ahem, offensively), and still can’t catch a break. Pierce is having an off-year, but his selection was more or less assumed. I just wish we could see Lee and Josh Smith in the game, but no such luck.
Photo by Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.
Box Score — Play-By-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
“Success is never final; failure is never fatal.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that the Mavs were simply fated to lose last night. It was an event eons in the making, and as all the planets aligned and all of the matter in the cosmos was just so. And then, through a nearly infinite number of events all happening in perfect sequence, the Mavs’ weaknesses were brought forth in four dimensions for all the world to see.
But I do know better, if only a little bit, which is why I can tell you this: even though the Mavs failed in multiple basketball dimensions last night, their coincidence was nearing on aberration. It was almost comical how many of their flaws the Mavs chose to expose, and though the final margin was not only delightfully close but decidedly winnable, there likely does not exist a light that illuminates last night’s offensive performance as anything deserving of praise.
There were bright spots, sure. But first let’s dwell on exactly what ails the Mavs. For one, the Maverick offense remains overly dependent on the scoring of Dirk Nowitzki. To his credit, Dirk came through (27 points on 10 of 13 shooting, albeit with six turnovers), despite the lingering pain and discomfort that goes along with ramming your elbow full speed into Carl Landry’s mouth. It was enough to keep Dirk out of the game entirely on Sunday, but Dirk’s jumper looked clean and healthy against the Blazers. The turnovers are certainly unusual, but given the rest of the team’s struggles on offense and the extra attention afforded to Nowitzki as a result, the true wonder is that it wasn’t any worse. Dirk has had to carry the Mavs on plenty of nights during his career, but rarely has a Dallas outfit looked so terribly hollow on offense.
J.J. Barea (22 points, 9-16 FG, five assists, two turnovers) was again indispensable, if only because the rest of the team combined to shot a woeful 23.5% (12-51 FG) from the field. Shawn Marion (0 points, 0-7 FG, six rebounds, two turnovers) had quite possibly his worst offensive game as a Maverick, almost to prove a point: Marion’s offense is a supplementary piece, a table setting to make that steak dinner more enjoyable without lending anything at all to its creation. He’s not going to carry the load, that much we know. He’s really in Dallas for his defense, after all, and his offensive contributions are meant to keep opposing defenses honest and take advantage of easy opportunities. Shawn was able to achieve none of the above, as his runners and layups alike all met rim in the most unfriendly of ways.
And Jason Terry (eight points, 2-13 FG, four assists, one turnover)? His struggles continue to destroy the Maverick offense from within. So much of the offense is predicated on Dirk and Terry exploiting mismatches, be it through the pick and roll or forcing switches through other means. They’re supposed to be the Mavs’ best offensive options, but so far, only Dirk is playing the part. JET is in the middle of an absolutely brutal shooting slump, which leaves him with little on-court purpose aside from playing the part of the decoy. There are other options that can defend, pass, and rebound better than Terry, and frankly, several of them could shoot better than him right now, too. Without his scoring, JET’s role on the team (and as a primary in the rotation) becomes debatable, and though I honestly believe Terry’s struggles to be a freak occurrence rather than a flaw in approach, someone needs to figure out how to curtail this drop-off and fast. It may not be the difference between a win and a loss every night, but it’s not far off.
Josh Howard (eight points, two rebounds, one assist) was a bit of a non-factor in a game that could’ve used one, and Drew Gooden (five points, 2-7 FG, six rebounds) reminded us all that missing shots within ten feet of the basket is a fine art. The depth that had buoyed Dallas against Cleveland was nowhere to be found, as an entire team’s worth of offense was was made the sole responsibility of a certain seven foot star and a pint-sized role player. There was no balance there, no versatility there, and on a night where nothing is going right, that really, really hurts.
And while you may notice that most of my criticisms dwell on one of the court rather than the other, make note that it’s no coincidence: the Mavs’ defense this year has been terrific, and for perhaps the first time in franchise history, it’s been the offense that has struggled to keep pace. LaMarcus Aldridge (19 points, 9-16 FG, 12 rebounds) was very effective from just about everywhere on the floor, but many of his baskets were simply a case of ‘Good D, Better O.’ That’s the kind of thing you have to live with in the NBA, as the world’s premier scorers are simply waiting for an opportunity to light your team up. If 19 points in 45 minutes from Aldridge is the brunt of that, then give yourselves a round of applause and call it a defensive victory. Brandon Roy may have scored 23, but he only shot 36.8%. And even then, the Mavs needn’t be upset by holding Roy to a mortal scoring output, especially considering the lockdown they did on the rest of Portland’s role players (the rest of the Blazers shot just 36.3% from the field).
But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to hold the Blazers to 93.4 points per 100 possessions (a full 12 points below their season average), because every Maverick offensive weakness wanted its chance in the spotlight and got its wish:
- The Mavs continue to struggle at home, where they can neither close out teams convincingly nor create mid-game separation.
- They still rely far too much on the big gun, as Dirk’s expected to not only put the Mavs in a position to win, but make every big shot when everything is on the line.
- Option B continues to struggle to score, and in his frustration, JET blew the Mavs’ final attempt to tie the game with eight seconds remaining by forcing up a difficult, contested layup. The Mavs still had timeouts.
- The Mavs’ typical contributors could not finish around the rim. Marion’s troubles may have been more pronounced, but Gooden blew plenty of opportunities near the basket against power forwards masquerading as centers. I guess that may not mean much when juxtaposed next to power-forward-masquerading-as-center Drew Gooden, but ideally it would.
- The offense was stagnant. With everyone’s confidence wrecked, Dallas devolved into a group of stand-still jump shooters, and while the midrange game may still be the weapon of choice for the Mavs, those shots need to come off open looks created by cuts, picks, and passes.
But if you’ll allow me that single bit of optimism that I never thought I’d have: the Mavs had a chance to win this one. A Dirk Nowitzki jumper went in and out with 38 seconds remaining, and what was perhaps a bit of bad judgment from Jason Terry is all that stood in the way of the defense securing yet another win. Dirk and Barea were essentially the only two parts of the offense that didn’t buckle, and still the Mavs were within a breath of forcing overtime. Who knows where the game goes from there, but it’s nice to know that in spite of all the reasons to be disappointed with the Mavs’ performances this season, their defense always seems to be a positive. It regularly puts them in a position to win games if it doesn’t win them outright. Though I still get headaches from watching the offense, it’s that kind of silver lining that can make a tough loss a bit more digestible.
- Mega bummer for the Blazers, who have likely lost Joel Przybilla for the season. Portland is a fun team and a model organization, and it’s just terrible that sometimes, bad things happen to good franchises. After all they’ve been through with Greg Oden, the Blazers certainly don’t deserve it. But here we are, and we’ll have to see where Kevin Pritchard is willing to take this roster to accommodate its need for big men in 2009-2010.
- The Cavaliers and the Blazers both seemed content to leave J.J. Barea open at the 3-point line, mostly as a way of combating his speed. It’s a strategic compromise, and my only hope is that J.J. can continue to improve his shooting stroke and capitalize like he did last night (3 of 4 from beyond the arc).
- The Mavs scored 14 points in the first quarter and 33 points in the first half. Both were their lowest such totals all season long.
- There was a pretty strange sequence in the third quarter, as Juwan Howard committed a flagrant foul on J.J. Barea…but Barea sunk the basket. As a result, he was afforded two chances to make one free throw, which effectively gave the Mavs a three-point play and control of the ball.
- I really shorted the Blazers their due in this recap, but they deserve plenty of credit. They played some nice D against the Mavs, and came up with just enough to win in spite of losing Przybilla. It’s understandably a big win for Portland given the circumstances, and deservedly so.
- The Mavs actually led after three thanks to a 32-point third quarter, but forked over the lead behind a 16-point fourth quarter effort. Yuck.
- Dirk wore a giant pad on his elbow to protect his favorite new scar. It didn’t seem to hinder his shot much at all.
For a team with a bright future, things in Portland are certainly dim. Greg Oden’s injury puts a damper on what could have been a successful season, and the point guard situation is far from resolved. They have an All-Star shooting guard and bright, young talent at virtually every position, yet the chemistry and rotation have become unexpected problems. The worst of it is this: regardless of what has worked for other teams in the past, there is no blueprint for team-building. There is no generic solution for the Blazers’ uniquely talented players, and though it sure beats being a lottery team, being rich with talent often presents its own new problems.
The Portland Trailblazers are an interesting case study on multiple levels, but particularly because their fortunes have been all over the place. Brandon Roy is clearly the star of the show, and rightfully so. He’s an incredibly talented offensive player who can produce without stymieing the greater team-wide vision. In fact, with a player of Roy’s particular talents and tendencies, you could go as far as to say that he excels within a team framework. There are certain NBA players who were born to win one-on-one tournaments. And for what it’s worth, Roy probably wouldn’t do too badly. That said, the true beauty of his game comes in how he controls the flow of the offense and manages space. He works the pick-and-roll beautifully, he draws extra defenders and finds the open man, and above all, Roy isn’t just capable of making the pass, but completely willing to. He’s humble. He’s a consummate professional. He’s hungry. And despite everything that has gone right for the Blazers in amassing their stable of young talent, it’s possible that they still haven’t figured out what kind of players are best-suited to flank Roy (and LaMarcus Aldridge, and whoever else is deemed part of the core).
It’s not as simple as taking a franchise model and plugging in Roy. His style is very much his own, and despite the temptation to assume that he would work the same in any number of systems with a precedent of talented shooting guards, that’s not the way it works. Just because the Bulls of the 90s, the Lakers of the early 2000s, and the current incarnation all run some version of the triangle offense, the personnel put their mark on the system. In those cases, you can hold the coach and the system constant, but that doesn’t make Luc Longley and Shaquille O’Neal one in the same. Players will always shape a system to make it unique, and great players typically have a more profound influence than is easily recognizable. As much as Roy is to be part of McMillan’s system, the system and the rotation must adjust to the specificities of Roy’s game.
Read my piece on Brandon Roy and the Blazers in its entirety at Hardwood Paroxysm.